Can Cabinet Office’s WordPress-based commentable bills make a difference?

The Protection of Freedoms Bill, published last week, has become the first piece of proposed legislation to go through a ‘public reading stage‘, as promised in the Coalition Agreement. The No10 website says it’s ‘the first step towards meeting the Coalition’s commitment to introduce a public reading stage for all Bills, allowing the Government to test the technology and ensure the system works well.’ And the technology in question is WordPress.

It’s a fairly straightforward presentation, using a custom WordPress theme bearing the catchy name ‘Cabinet Office Commentable Document (non-core)’, produced by the Cabinet Office’s in-house digital team – in double-quick time, so I’m hearing. The government branding is very understated indeed, with only an HM Government logo, in the bottom right corner. It looks like it’s all based on pages, as opposed to posts, with a jQuery-based expand/collapse menu (which I suspect has been hard-coded) in the left margin. It’s sitting on the same Amazon account as the main Cabinet Office site.

Can it work as an idea? I’m not convinced. The commenting technology’s certainly up to it, as we’ve proven time and again. But legislation isn’t exactly written to be read; you don’t have to dig too deeply into the site to find unintelligible passages, with every other sentence cross-referencing another subsection of another chapter of another Act… and no hyperlinking (even though all the source material should presumably be available in legislation.gov.uk). I just can’t imagine how an ordinary member of the public could be expected to make sense of it.

A starting point would be a ‘diff’ tool, similar to a programmer’s code editor – showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’, with changes highlighted. If you’ve never seen one, they look something like this:

One example: the open source tool, Meld

… instantly allowing you to see where text has been added and/or changed, and how. Wikipedia offers something similar: if you click on ‘View history’ for any page, you’re able to compare various past versions of the page, and see the changes highlighted (albeit in a less-than-friendly fashion). And indeed, back in 2007 MySociety proposed a diff tool (of sorts) as part of their Free Our Bills campaign.

Without this, I can’t imagine many ordinary people going to the trouble of decoding what’s actually being proposed… meaning I can’t see it doing anything to widen participation, if that’s the intention. So whilst it’ll be useful as a pilot exercise, I fear it’ll only prove the difference between green/white papers, which are text documents intended to be read; and bills, which just aren’t.

Free our data, says Lords info committee

I blogged previously about the House of Lords Information Committee’s inquiry into ‘People and Parliament‘: their final report came out this week, and couldn’t really have been more in favour of the ‘free our bills‘ agenda. Among its recommendations, as listed in the press release:

  • information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format (not pdf) that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data
  • the integration of information on Parliament’s website, eg biographical info on Members to be linked to their voting record, their register of interests, questions tabled, etc
  • Bills should be presented on Parliament’s website in a way that makes the legislative process more transparent and easier to understand
  • an online system enabling people to sign up to receive electronic alerts and updates about particular Bills
  • a requirement on the Government to start producing Bills in an electronic format which both complies with ‘open standards’ and is readily reusable
  • an online database to increase awareness of Members’ areas of expertise
  • an online debate to run in parallel with a debate in the Lords Chamber
  • greater access to Parliament for factual filming
  • a trial period during which voting in the Lords is filmed from within the voting lobbies
  • all public meetings of Lords committees to be webcast with video and audio
  • a review of the parliamentary language used in the House of Lords to make it easier for people outside the House to understand

But there’s a lot more good stuff in it than just that (!). I note in particular the recommendation to take the Lords Of The Blog website further – incidentally, its recent facelift is a dramatic improvement (and I’ll be mentioning it in my WordCamp talk at the weekend); and the explicit commitment to allow people to embed video clips on their own websites, in a direct challenge to the existing (YouTube-centric) ban. (In fact, in their list of ‘action already taken’, they say ‘We have approved members uploading their contributions to the House’s proceedings onto YouTube.’ – so maybe the ban’s gone already, at least on the Lords’ side?

Never let it be said that politicians as a whole don’t get it.

Cameron’s online promises

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The explicit references to the internet in David Cameron’s big speech on ‘fixing broken politics’ this morning don’t come until the end. All MPs’ expenses to be published online; the same will go for ‘all other public servants earning over £150,000’. An Obama-esque pledge to put all national spending over £25,000 online. A commitment to ‘publish all Parliamentary information online in an open-source format’ (whatever that means). An end to the ‘ridiculous ban on parliamentary proceedings being uploaded to YouTube’. All good, on the face of it.

But the underlying message throughout the speech, empowerment of the individual, is really only a reflection of the changes being brought about by the internet revolution. We expect to be able to do things now, in our daily lives, which seemed like science-fiction only a few years ago. It’s really not that long ago that ’28 days for delivery’ was a standard; now we get fidgety if our delivery isn’t here within 2 or 3 days. Your mobile phone has instant access to every fact in the world, within seconds.

So Cameron’s talk of ‘giving people the power to work collectively with their peers to solve common problems’ isn’t really the articulation of a great vision: it’s a reflection of a reality that’s already with (many of) us. Likewise, transparency isn’t really something within his gift. ‘At the length, truth will out,’ Shakespeare wrote as far back as 1600; it’s just that these days, it gets out a heck of a lot quicker.

Having said all that, there are some parts of the speech which make me feel a little uncomfortable. I find it difficult to hear an Old Etonian and Oxbridge-graduate speaking up for ordinary people feeling ‘deprived of opportunities to shape the world around them, and at the mercy of powerful elites that preside over them’. And similarly, when he says ‘we rage at our political system because we feel it is self-serving’, I find my eyebrows raising at the use of the word ‘we’. (A bit like when Five Live presenters talk about ‘the media’ in the third person.)

But the reality is, this is the man who currently seems most likely to be running the country in a year’s time. The power will be in his hands. And whether he’s doing it by choice, or just recognising the way the wind is blowing, he’s talking about diluting that power, boosting transparency, and embracing the web. We like.

Stop what you’re doing and sign up

I’m not sure I need to waste my time explaining why you need to go to TheyWorkForYou and sign up to MySociety’s campaign to Free Our Bills – or rather, to have Parliamentary data marked up in mashup-friendly XML. Just compare ‘proper’ Hansard to TheyWorkForYou, and imagine the same process being done on all Parliamentary paperwork.

You may or may not be interested in the intricacies of XML parsing, or even in the uglier workings of the Houses of Parliament. But the fact is, TheyWorkForYou has become a living case study for what we want from e-government. It’s the best-practice example everyone quotes. And if they can persuade/force Parliament to work with them, it sets a valuable precedent for everyone else.

Quick update: Tom Steinberg has been in touch to say it’s not a petition, it’s ‘an action list, proper online campaign style’. Duly noted.

And when you’re done there… log into Facebook (come on, you remember) and join the campaign to allow clips of Parliament on YouTube. Useful in itself, but helpful to MPs who want to show their constituents what they’re up to. My thanks to Lynne Featherstone for the tipoff.